Benedict Cumberbatch Reads Nick Cave’s Beautiful Letter About Grief

We would rather not grieve. Because we avoid it, death can leave us numb, and we may not know how to talk about it with­out turn­ing loss into a les­son. “Even when it’s expect­ed, death or loss still comes as a sur­prise,” writes psy­chother­a­pist Megan Devine in her book on griev­ing, It’s OK That You’re Not OKAnd in grief, it can so hap­pen that “oth­er­wise intel­li­gent peo­ple have start­ed spout­ing slo­gans and plat­i­tudes, try­ing to cheer you up. Try­ing to take away your pain.” Every­thing hap­pens for a rea­son, they’re in a bet­ter place, they’d want you to be hap­py, this will make you stronger….! How­ev­er well-inten­tioned, “plat­i­tudes and cheer­lead­ing solve noth­ing.”

Is loss a prob­lem to be solved? Can we avoid grief with­out shut­ting out the inti­ma­cy of love? There are many sage answers to these ques­tions. Few, for exam­ple, have writ­ten as ele­gant­ly or ago­nized as pub­licly about love and loss as singer Nick Cave of The Birth­day Par­ty and The Bad Seeds. These are sub­jects to which he returns on album after album and in entries of his cult-favorite blog The Red Hand Files, where Cave pub­lish­es answers to an assort­ment of fan ques­tions.

Mus­ing in 2019 on whether arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence will ever pro­duce a great song, for exam­ple, Cave states one of his major themes plain­ly: “A sense of awe is almost exclu­sive­ly pred­i­cat­ed on our lim­i­ta­tions as human beings. It is entire­ly to do with our audac­i­ty as humans to reach beyond our poten­tial.” From this capac­i­ty come our great­est imag­i­na­tive feats, Cave writes: our abil­i­ty to con­jure “bright phan­toms” in our deep­est grief.

Cave wrote these last words in 2018 to a fan named Cyn­thia who told him about her fam­i­ly’s loss­es and asked the singer if he and his wife Susie com­mu­ni­cat­ed with their son Arthur, who died trag­i­cal­ly in 2015. In answer, Cave avoids the clich­es that Devine says do noth­ing for us. He nei­ther denies the real­i­ty of Cyn­thi­a’s pain, nor does he leave her with­out hope for “change and growth and redemp­tion.”

Dear Cyn­thia,

This is a very beau­ti­ful ques­tion and I am grate­ful that you have asked it. It seems to me, that if we love, we grieve. That’s the deal. That’s the pact. Grief and love are for­ev­er inter­twined. Grief is the ter­ri­ble reminder of the depths of our love and, like love, grief is non-nego­tiable. There is a vast­ness to grief that over­whelms our minus­cule selves. We are tiny, trem­bling clus­ters of atoms sub­sumed with­in grief’s awe­some pres­ence. It occu­pies the core of our being and extends through our fin­gers to the lim­its of the uni­verse. With­in that whirling gyre all man­ner of mad­ness­es exist; ghosts and spir­its and dream vis­i­ta­tions, and every­thing else that we, in our anguish, will into exis­tence. These are pre­cious gifts that are as valid and as real as we need them to be. They are the spir­it guides that lead us out of the dark­ness.

I feel the pres­ence of my son, all around, but he may not be there. I hear him talk to me, par­ent me, guide me, though he may not be there. He vis­its Susie in her sleep reg­u­lar­ly, speaks to her, com­forts her, but he may not be there. Dread grief trails bright phan­toms in its wake. These spir­its are ideas, essen­tial­ly. They are our stunned imag­i­na­tions reawak­en­ing after the calami­ty. Like ideas, these spir­its speak of pos­si­bil­i­ty. Fol­low your ideas, because on the oth­er side of the idea is change and growth and redemp­tion. Cre­ate your spir­its. Call to them. Will them alive. Speak to them. It is their impos­si­ble and ghost­ly hands that draw us back to the world from which we were jet­ti­soned; bet­ter now and unimag­in­ably changed.

With love, Nick

Cave’s full let­ter, above, is as elo­quent a piece of writ­ing on grief and loss, in its way, as John Don­ne’s famous med­i­ta­tion (a poet for whom Nick Cave has a “soft spot,” he writes in anoth­er entry). At the top, you can hear a very mov­ing read­ing of the text by Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch for Let­ters Live. Read more of Cave’s brief-but-deep med­i­ta­tions and lyri­cal replies at The Red Hand Files.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Nick Cave Answers the Hot­ly Debat­ed Ques­tion: Will Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence Ever Be Able to Write a Great Song?

How Do You Help a Griev­ing Friend? Acknowl­edge Their Pain and Skip the Plat­i­tudes & Facile Advice

An Ani­mat­ed Leonard Cohen Offers Reflec­tions on Death: Thought-Pro­vok­ing Excerpts from His Final Inter­view

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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